Jerusalem Ultra-Orthodox Jews armed with assault rifles lugged boxes, sofas and potted plants into two buildings in a crowded Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem at daybreak Wednesday, sparking clashes between Israeli troops and angry residents.
Israeli officials said the group had the right to live in the buildings in east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it in the 1967 Mideast War.
Palestinian officials said the incident proved Israel was less interested in peace than in tightening its grasp on east Jerusalem, which they want for the capital of a future state.
Later Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended his plan to unilaterally withdraw from most or all of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. A day earlier, he agreed to a binding referendum among his rebellious Likud Party members on the "disengagement" plan.
Sharon said Israel must draw its own security line, which would mean "withdrawal from areas which it is understood will not be under Israeli control in any permanent agreement to be signed in the future, which cause great friction between Israelis and Palestinians -- the Gaza Strip, for example."
Early Wednesday, a group of Jews with a van packed with sofas and furniture moved into a seven-story apartment building and a smaller house in the Silwan neighborhood of east Jerusalem. The settlers hauled a water tank onto the roof of one building and set up a generator.
In recent years, hawkish Jewish groups, with the backing of hard-line governments and foreign investors, have bought several east Jerusalem buildings, including several in Silwan, to strengthen Israel's hold there. Settlers said eight families were to move into the Silwan buildings. The Arab owner of the house disputed the claim.
Clashes erupted in a narrow alley, and Palestinian residents threw stones from roofs.
Police and soldiers ran onto other rooftops and fired tear gas at the demonstrators. Troops pulled young men out of nearby homes and dragged away some in handcuffs. They took no action against the settlers.
About 200,000 Israelis live in 11 Jewish neighborhoods built on land captured in 1967, said Menachem Klein, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. Another 2,000 Israelis live among 220,000 Arabs in Muslim and Christian neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, about half of them in the Muslim Quarter of the walled Old City and as many as 400 in nearby Silwan, he said.
The group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews said Wednesday they had come to reinforce the Jewish presence in Silwan, which they said housed a community of Yemenite Jews 122 years ago. In 1938, the last of the families were forced to leave during Arab riots, said Daniel Luria, a spokesman for the group.